Excerpt from “History of Experimental Music in the United States,” in Silence

by John Cage

         In an article called “New and Electronic Music,” Christian Wolff [b. 1934, a pupil and colleague of Cage’s] says:

         “Sound come into it’s own.”  What does that mean?  For one thing: it means that noises are as useful to new music as so-called musical tones, for the simple reason that they are sounds.  This decision alters the view of history, so that one is no longer concerned with tonality or atonality, Schoenberg or Stravinsky (the twelve tones or the twelve expressed as seven plus five), nor with consonance and dissonance, but rather with Edgar Varese who fathered forth noise into twentieth-century music.  But it is clear that ways must be discovered that allow noises and tones to be just noises and tones, not exponents subservient to Varese’s imagination.
         What is the true nature of an experimental action?  It is simply an action the outcome of which is not foreseen.  It is therefore very useful if one has decided that sounds are to come into their own, rather than being exploited to express sentiments or ideas of order.  Among those actions the outcomes of which are not foreseen, actions resulting from chance operations are useful.  However, more essential than composing by means of chance operations, it seems to me now, is composing in such a way that what one does is indeterminate of its performance.  In such a case one can just work directly, for nothing one does gives rise to anything that is preconceived.  This necessitates, of course, a rather great change of habits of notation.  I take a sheet of paper and place points on it.  Next I make parallel lines on a transparency, say five parallel lines.  I establish five categories of sound for the five lines, but I do not say which line is which category.  The transparency may be placed on the sheet with points in any position and readings of the points may be taken with regard to all the characteristics on wishes to distinguish.  Another transparency may be used for further measurements, even altering the succession of sounds in time.  In this situation no chance operations are necessary (for instance, no tossing of coins) for nothing is foreseen, though everything may be later minutely measured or simply taken as a vague suggestion.
         Implicit here, it seems to me, are principles familiar from modern painting and architecture: collage and space.  What makes this action like Dada are the underlying philosophical views and collagelike actions.  But what makes this action unlike Dada is the space in it.  For it is the space and emptiness that is finally urgently necessary at this point in history (not the sounds that happen in it  - or their relationships).  When I said recently in Darmstadt that one could write music by observing the imperfections in the paper upon which one was writing, a student who did not understand because he was full of musical ideas asked, “Would one piece of paper be better than another: one for instance that had more imperfections?”  He was attached to sounds and because of his attachment could not let sounds just be sounds.  He needed to attach himself to the emptiness, to the silence.  Then things - sounds, that is - would come into being of themselves.  Why is it so necessary that sounds would just be sounds?  There are many ways of saying why.  One is this: In order that each sound may become the Buddha.  If that is too Oriental an expression, take the Christian Gnostic statement: “Split the stick and there is Jesus.”
         We know that sounds and noises are not just frequencies (pitches): that is why so much of European musical studies and even so much of modern music is no longer urgently necessary.  It is pleasant if you happen to hear Beethoven or Chopin or whatever, but it isn’t urgent to do so any more.  Nor is harmony or counterpoint or counting in meters of two, three, or four or any other number.
         And in connection with musical continuity, [Henry] Cowell remarked at the New School before a concert of works by Christian Wolff, Earle Brown [1926-], Morton Feldman [1926-] and myself, that here were four composers who were getting rid of glue.  That is: Where people had felt the necessity to stick sounds together to make a continuity, we four felt the opposite necessity to get rid of the glue so that sounds would be themselves.
         Christian Wolffe was the first to do this.  He wrote some pieces vertically on the page but recommended their being played horizontally left to right, as is conventional.  Later he discovered other geometric means for freeing his music of intentional continuity.  Morton Feldman divided pitches into three areas, high, middle, and low, and established a time unit.  Writing on graph paper, he simply inscribed numbers of tones to be played at any time within specific periods of time.
 There are people who say, “If music’s that easy to write, I could do it.”  Of course they could, but they don’t.  I find Feldman’s own statement more affirmative.  We were driving back from some place in New England where a concert had been given.  He is a large man and falls asleep easily.  Out of a sound sleep, he awoke to say, “Now that things are so simple, there’s so much to do.”  And then he went back to sleep.
         Giving up control so that sounds can be sounds (they are not men: they are sounds) means for instance: the conductor of an orchestra is no longer a policeman.  Simply an indicator of time - not in beats - like a chronometer.  He has his own part.  Actually he is not necessary if all the players have some other way of knowing what time it is and how time is changing.
         Actually America has an intellectual climate suitable for radical experimentation.  We are, as Gertrude Stein said, the oldest country of the twentieth century.  And I like to add: in our air way of knowing nowness.  Buckminister Fuller, the dymaxion architect, in his three-hour lecture on the history of civilization, explains that men leaving Asia to go to Europe went against the wind and developed machines, ideas, and occidental philosophies in accord with the struggle against nature; that, on the other hand, men leaving Asia to go to America went with the wind, put up a sail, and developed ideas and Oriental philosophies in accord with the acceptance of nature.  These two tendencies met in America, producing a movement into the air, not bound to the past, traditions, or whatever.  Once in Amsterdam, a Dutch musician said to me, “It must be very difficult for you in America to write music, for you are so far away from the centres of tradition.”  I had to say, “It must be very difficult for you in Europe to write music, for you are so close to the centres of tradition.”
         The vitality that characterizes the current European musical scene follows from the activities of Boulez, Stockhausen, [Luigi] Non [1924-], [Bruno] Maderna [1920-73], [Henri] Pousseur [1929-], [Luciano] Berio [1925-], etc.  There is in all this activity an element of tradition, continuity with the past, which is expressed in each work as an interest in continuity whether in terms of discourse or organization.  By critics this activity is termed post-Webernian.  However, this term apparently means only music written after that of Webern, not music written because of that of Webern: there is no sign of klangfarbenmelodie [“timbre melody”], no concern for discontinuity - rather a surprising acceptance of even the most banal of continuity devices: ascending or descending linear passages, crescendi and diminuendi, passages from tape to orchestra that that are made imperceptible.  The skills that are required to bring such events about are taught in the academies.  However, this scene will change.  The silences of American experimental music and even its technical involvements with chance operations are being introduced into new European music.  It will not be easy, however, for Europe to give up being Europe.  It will, nevertheless, and must: for the world is one world now.